July 6, 2020 CEEC

Biomimicry: Looking To Nature For Innovative Solutions To Our Human-Caused Problems.

By: Magnus de Pencier

Nature, and more importantly humans’ complex and disingenuous relationship with it, is a topic that is contentious, frightful, and relentless. The quote, “We envision a world in which people view nature not as a warehouse of goods but as a storehouse of knowledge and inspiration for sustainable solutions.” By Janine Benyus makes me wonder about the true solution to peaceful coexistence with our natural world. How can humans attempt to restore and replenish ecosystems and species that are on the verge of extinction? 

An Eco-Modernist, for example, would tell you that humans’ mastery over and separation from nature through relative and absolute decoupling is fundamental to sustainable longevity. This, along with intensified agriculture, urbanization, and investments in modern day technologies they consider to be the only way for humanity to flourish while preserving the biodiversity of the natural world. A Deep-Ecologist/Eco-Feminist on the other hand, would thoroughly disagree, stating that the earth, along with all of her resources, should not be interfered or tampered with by human activity, which is inherently destructive. Agriculture, they would argue, and the mechanized technology and pesticides that accompany it today, must be scaled back to local and traditional farming methods.

Then, there is Biomimicry: Technologically innovative practices that are inspired by nature. Biomimicry imitates nature by emulating its models, systems, and elements in order to effectively solve human-made problems. The Biomimicry Institute, founded in 2006 by Janine Benyus and Bryony Schwan, state that the goal of Biomimicry is to “create products, processes, and policies-new ways of living-that solve our greatest design challenges sustainably and in solidarity with all life on earth”. (Biomimicry Institute). Here is an example of one of the more famous Biomimicry examples in the real world, and the positive impact it can have on the environment and human race. 

Eiji Nakatsu and Japan’s Shinkansen Bullet-Train. 

The Shinkansen bullet-train, stretching from Shin-Osaka to the ward of Hakata, was built to carry passengers at exceptionally fast speeds (167 mph travelling over roughly 300 miles). However, there was one issue that had to be dealt with. The atmospheric pressure buildup from the train rushing through a tunnel, and out the other end, resulted in a deafening and unpleasant sound that exceeded the maximum decibel limit in the residential neighbourhoods in which it passed. 

Eiji Nakatsu, the head of the engineering team that was delegated to solve this problem, was inspired by the aerodynamic characteristics of a number of birds that ultimately made the new 500 Shinkansen series quieter and more efficient. The trains pantograph wing was modeled after the feathers of an Owl, its pantograph base after the body of an Adelie Penguin, and most consequently, the trains nose very much mimicked the bill of a Kingfisher. Here are a couple of tables from Eiji Nakatus’ lecture on biomimicry.

Table 1:

ProblemAnimalCharacteristicApplication
The pantograph, a piece that connects the train to its power source, vibrated and made a loud noise.OwlThe owl has a concave face capable of absorbing sound. Its body has ample down to absorb fluttering sounds. Tiny serrations on its primary feathers minimize the vortex generated by movement.The pantograph was reshaped like an owl’s wing, including small serrations, which resulted in no vibrations and a quieter impact for residents near the tracks.
The supporting frame for the pantograph had a high degree of wind resistance resulting in aerodynamic noise.PenguinThe body of the Adelie Penguin is shaped like a spindle which allows it to move effortlessly through water to catch fish.The pantograph’s supporting shaft was reshaped like a penguin’s body to lower its wind resistance.
When the train would enter a tunnel, a loud bang would occur due to the fixed air volume of the tunnel and the sudden increase in pressure from the entering train.KingfisherThe shape of the Kingfisher’s head and beak allow it to glide through the air and precisely dive into water to snag fish. It is the most efficient animal on earth to transition from low pressure (air) to high pressure (water).The nose of the Shinkansen train was reshaped in the form of the Kingfisher to eliminate the sudden pressure increase. No more bang.

(“Eiji Nakatsu: Lecture on Biomimicry as Applied to a Japanese Train.” It Is Alive in the Lab, labs.blogs.com/its_alive_in_the_lab/2012/04/biomimicry-japanese-train.html.)

Table 2:

DesignBeforeAfter
Pantograph WingWing_beforeWing_after
Pantograph BaseBase_beforeBase_after
Train NoseBeforeAfter

(“Eiji Nakatsu: Lecture on Biomimicry as Applied to a Japanese Train.” It Is Alive in the Lab, labs.blogs.com/its_alive_in_the_lab/2012/04/biomimicry-japanese-train.html.)

Through these new “design” amendments influenced by animals we encounter in our daily lives, not only was the new 500 Shinkansen series bullet-train under the legal decibel limit when passing through neighbourhoods, it was also 10% faster and used 15% less energy (Vox). In today’s world, we have reached an unprecedented level of high connectivity and uniformity. Through just a click of a button, technological information and material resources can flow between people, companies, and markets. Similarly, manufacturing plants, garment factories, and financial institutions no matter where they are located around the world primarily use the same ideas, designs, processes, and product cycles that allow for a just-in-time delivery and an instant gratification way of life. This level of high consistency and connectivity around the world means that, if we have learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, things (whether it be a infectious disease or an ideal) can rapidly transmit and disrupt every corner of the globe. Design systems need to be diversified and more resilient to the shocks and disturbances of our natural world. Learning from nature’s models and ecosystems, that have been continually adapting and surviving the earth’s elements for 3.8 billion years, may be a necessary and practical solution to the longevity of humans on earth. 

For other cool Biomimicry projects check out these links:

  1. Learning from Prairies how to grow food in Resilient ways
  2. Learning from mosquitos to create “a nicer needle”
  3. Learning from dolphins how to send signals underwater
  4. Learning from termites how to create sustainable buildings